Edwin Laurentine Drake (1819-1880), former American railroad conductor who, in 1859, drilled the first successful oil well in the United States at a site in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Financed with backing from New Haven capitalists, including leaders of the American whale oil industry, Drake is rumored to have been selected for the experiment of drilling for oil primarily because he had a free pass with which to travel the railroad! Once in the area of Pennsylvania’s well-known oil seeps (naturally occurring springs), though, Drake distinguished himself with his persistence.
Drake’s efforts were initially ridiculed by locals who cursed the crude oil that fouled their water wells and ruined their efforts at agriculture. With the assistance of Uncle Billy Smith (a blacksmith from near Erie, Pennsylvania), Drake utilized the same artesian drilling method used to begin a water well. During the late summer of 1859, Drake ran out of funds and wired to New Haven for more money. He was told that he would be given money only for a trip home—that the Seneca Oil Company, as the group was now called, was done supporting him in this folly. Drake took out a personal line of credit to continue, and a few days later, on August 29, 1859, Drake and his assistant discovered oozing oil in their well.
Drake’s well was a pumper—it did not gush from the ground. To gain a flow of approximately sixty barrels of oil per day, mechanical pumps needed to pull the oil up from the underground well. Even this small amount of production, though, suggested the potential of petroleum for satisfying humans’ energy needs—and even adding to them. Entrepreneurs from all over the world identified the potential in Pennsylvania's "rock oil."
Within a day of Drake's striking oil, other men were constructing their own oil wells nearby. While oil was used as an energy source prior to Drake's discovery, it was not available in large enough quantities to be very useful. Thus, many historians recognize Drake's developments as the foundation of the modern oil industry.
Oil generated unprecedented wealth for individuals, corporations and nations, but not for Drake; poor health and poor business decisions eventually impoverished him. In recognition of his important role to the industry, though, Pennsylvania legislators eventually provided Drake and his family with financial support.
- Black, Brian C. PETROLIA: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
- Drake Well Museum Homepage
- PBS Online. Pioneers: Edwin Drake.
- Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Edwin L. Drake and the Birth of the Modern Petroleum Industry.